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Mexican drug traffickers branching out to other nations

Fall of Colombian cartels may have opened new doors

By Juan Carlos Llorca and Frank Bajak
Associated Press / July 26, 2009

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GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose “Juancho’’ Leon was summoned by Mexican traffickers for what he was told was business. Instead, dozens of attackers ambushed his entourage with grenades and assault rifles, killing Leon and 10 others in a brazen demonstration of power.

Mexican drug traffickers are branching out as never before - spreading their tentacles into 47 nations, including the United States, Guatemala, and even Colombia, long the heart of the drug trade in Latin America.

The expansion is occurring amid a military crackdown in Mexico and the arrests of major Colombian suppliers and poses a new challenge for efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.

In dozens of interviews with officials and experts in seven countries, the Associated Press found that the Mexican mobs increasingly buy directly from the cocaine-producing Andes and have begun using countries as distant as Argentina to obtain the raw material for methamphetamine. Mexican gangsters have been arrested as far away as Malaysia as they seek new markets for cocaine and “meth’’ supply sources.

“There are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period,’’ said Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help Colombia dismantle its major cartels but may have helped the Mexicans gain traction in South America in the process.

In the past two years, Colombia extradited 14 warlords to the United States on drug-running charges, and another six major traffickers have been killed or arrested. Mexican emissaries and money are flowing into the country to fill the void.

“The belief is that the Mexicans are trying to get closer to the source of supply and take over the transport,’’ said Jere Miles, chief of the unit that tracks trade-based money laundering for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mexican traffickers have turned up in many Colombian cities and are working to get cash in the hands of peasants to boost coca production, said General Oscar Naranjo, Colombian police director.

“We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellín, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla,’’ he said.

In neighboring Peru, the world’s number two cocaine-producing country after Colombia, Mexican traffickers are bribing customs officials at airports and seaports and laundering money by investing in real estate. At least four major Mexican cartels now buy cocaine directly in Peru, said Sonia Medina, chief public prosecutor for drugs and money laundering.

In the past three years, 40 Mexicans have been arrested in Peru on drug-trafficking charges, mostly low-level couriers smuggling 22 to 44 pounds of cocaine in suitcases, said Colonel Leonardo Morales of Peru’s antinarcotics police.

Guatemala is struggling to combat the Mexican crime invasion with helicopters loaned from the United States and organized crime investigators from the UN. Guatemalans feel their country, wedged between Mexico and Colombia, has become “the meat in a hamburger,’’ theninterior minister Francisco Jose Jimenez said last year.